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Soundtrack review: Fargo – year 3 (Jeff Russo – 2017)

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Soundtrack review: Fargo – year 3 (Jeff Russo – 2017)

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“Fargo” is an American black comedy–crime drama anthology television series created and primarily written by Noah Hawley. The show is inspired by the eponymous 1996 film written and directed by the Coen brothers, who serve as executive producers on the series alongside Hawley. The series premiered on April 15, 2014, on FX and follows an anthology format, with each season set in a different era, and with a different story and mostly new characters and cast, although there is minor overlap. Each season shares a common chronology with the original film.

I’ve been a fan of the show and its music ever since the beginning. Actually, Carter Burwell’s original theme for the movie, which is the bases for Jeff Russo’s main themes, has remained in my mind for 20 years. The third season meant a bit of a dip in quality from the writing point of view but musically I enjoyed it the most out of the 3; it may be because the lack of interesting things happening on screen meant I could focus more on the music and I connected more to it. It’s time now to hear it out of the context of the show.

And the first thing that got to me was this year’s version of the main theme which was subtle and choral, quiet yet piercing like a strangely mismatched Christmas Carol played when under the tree there’s only blood instead of gifts. We move on to Gloria’s theme and she wasn’t one of my favourite characters but the melodic and almost whimsical way in which Jeff Russo chose to portray her fitted her perfectly; Gloria’s theme sounds almost like a soft little fairly tale waltz and makes me think of the way she sometimes felt out of this world when none of the automatic sensors, be it sliding doors, toilets or faucets reacted to her presence. Speaking of whimsical there is a theme dedicated to Minsky, the android from the novel that keeps getting referenced in the show and it’s just delightful with the beam sounds and the sudden changes of pace that remind me of the Android’s journey through human history. Besides I’ll always love a cue that features arcade game sounds and I can hear the Fargo theme transposed in 8 bit.

On the other hand the most interesting and compelling character was Nikki and she gets an 8 minute long theme “For Nikki”; I even love the title which shows the care the composer put in describing this character musically. Nikki is all about the piano; Nikki is a piano soloist alone in a room with this magnificent instrument playing the entire range of emotions that ran through the girl, from love, to anger, to despair, to sadness and it’s all in the way those black and white keys are pressed, some easier, others harder; Jeff Russo even wrote this as an improvisation at times just like Nikki used to improvise in the face of unexpected events, always with a determination that never left her. It’s not easy to compose such a long theme exclusively for the piano but Jeff Russo managed to make me feel as if I was attending a piano concerto and I just wanted to applaud at the end. A cue like “For Nikki” is a very rare feat in today’s film and TV music and I invite you to listen to it because, just like the title says, it’s a mirror in which the composer shows his feelings about this character.

It’s not over though as there is another cue, just as long, entitled “Orchestra for Nikki” which is of course an expansion of the piano theme. I love it that Jeff Russo dedicated this much time and music to Nikki because she made the show this season. The dialogue between the flute and the rest of the orchestra, the angry horn section, the tender violin motifs just make for one of the best orchestral cues I’ve heard this year. Jeff Russo took the small candle that lighted that one minimalistic spot where his “Fargo” music was and set the whole room on fire.

A series that’s already in its third year gives the composer a chance to expand the musical world he created; it gives him more confidence to explore and experiment and to me this album as a standalone listening experience plays like a full symphonic concert; the music is beautiful, the instruments are heard crystal clear, be they horns, the dreamy flute which features a lot (is it Sara Andon playing, I wonder) or the string section. A cue like “Horn heavy” just makes me want to be in the room where they recorded this. I feel as if Jeff Russo wrote half of the cues for specific moments and characters of the show and the other half just for the atmosphere and the mood and for me this is the right balance. Somehow these particular cues make me feel as if I live in the small town where the action takes place and I participate as a bystander or witness to the mayhem there. The music is sometimes melodic and melancholic or alert with marching band percussion when the it’s time for action.

Jeff Russo wrote his best music so far with “Fargo – year 3”. The album shows a composer full of confidence and besides the music being more beautiful, more emotional and more intense than before I also appreciate the experimental cues because every single one of them works. “Fargo – year 3” is a thick and complex orchestral album, a fascinating story in itself and, for once, better and more compelling than the show it was written for. I have just listened to an album that I will return very often to, an album that would please a much wider audience than film and TV music fans and I wish Jeff would go on tour with it. With this album I just added “Fargo” to the list of TV scores I look forward to the most each year, right up there with “Game of thrones”, “House of cards” or “Vikings”. I can’t wait for season 4.

Cue rating: 91 / 100

Total minutes of excellence: 52 / 71

Album excellence: 74%

Highlights:
Fargo Main Theme (Choir)
Gloria’s Theme
For Nikki
Horn Heavy
Year Three Murder
Minsky (I Can Help)
Nikki in Tub
The Robbery
Orchestra for Nikki
Varga
The Russians (Alternate Version)
Fargo Main Theme (Season 3)

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Mihnea Manduteanu

I have been listening to film music for 25 years and writing about it since 2014. I've written over 1000 reviews and I can't imagine myself doing anything else. I am also a member of IFMCA (International Film Music Critics Association).

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